A response to Andrew Collins’s “In Defense of Hamilfans.”
At the risk of being an insufferable hipster: I was a nerd before it was cool. I grew up watching Star Trek TNG reruns every night at 9 p.m. before toddling off to bed. I read X-Men comics before the movies were a thing. I read Game of Thrones before the HBO show was a glimmer in David Benioff’s eye. Today’s pop culture is rife with topics, genres, and media that were previously considered to be less than cool. As geek becomes chic, “fandoms” become increasingly visible and accessible to the general public. We’ve all come across the occasional Potterhead, Twi-hard, Whovian, or Brony. Recently, Hamilfans have come together to make up one of the most enthusiastic, vocal, and wide-reaching fandoms yet.
I love the way Andrew Collins’s piece on Hamilfans encouraged people to deeply appreciate art, to the point of obsession. But I do want to challenge his implication that superfans cannot also be critics. The word “criticism” might sound like something our moms used to do when we’d come downstairs wearing a boldly colorful, if structurally unsound, clothing ensemble. But when it comes to the arts, “criticism” need not have negative connotations. An arts critic does not set out to find fault with a work, but to judge its quality, encompassing both faults and merits. Collins’s admiration of the Hamilfan is inspiring, but his description of art obsession as passive conversion experience could be misleading. If you wish to love a work of art with the same level of pure obsession you see in Hamilfans, interacting with art through critique may actually aid you in your quest.
To critique a work of art as an individual is to ask: is this deserving of my time, imagination, and mental investment? A critic approaches art in a deliberate, conscious manner, wrestling through difficult questions in order to ascertain where a work excels, and where it is lacking. A non-critic, on the other hand, relies only on the initial reaction of “did I like it?” This non-critical question leaves a distance between observer and art, because it centers on the observer’s reaction to the work, rather than on the strengths and weakness of the art itself.
Critique is somewhat of a lost art. With thousands of books instantly available on my Kindle, and customizable playlists on iTunes, it is tempting to simply read or listen to works that immediately strike my fancy. If I like something, it goes on the playlist. If I dislike something, it is discarded, because there are a myriad of other works waiting to take its place. There is little motivation to spend time and energy critiquing a work. This method is fast, easy, and for the most part, enjoyable. But it is consumer-focused, rather than art-focused, and it keeps us at the surface level of enjoyment.
One place where I see a constant use of critique is in fandoms. For the uninitiated, fandoms are communities, subcultures (often online), where superfans come together to share their mutual interest in a specific book, television series, film, game, musical, etc. Here’s the thing about fandoms: they can be really annoying for those who aren’t involved. From the outside, they might look like swirling masses of teenaged fangirls sobbing over the latest vampire hunk, while learning Elvish in order to communicate with their future husband: a cardboard cutout of Legolas. However, the outside craziness of fandom masks an inner depth and complexity.
Fandoms are about engaging a work of art, entering into it, and delving in deeper. Being a superfan isn’t about a simple conversion that allows you to revel in the awesomeness that is Hamilton (for instance). It involves direct interaction with art, often leading to the fan taking on a creative role through fanart (reimagining, speculating), fanfic (theorizing, predicting, questioning, rectifying perceived flaws), fan theories (analysis, unpacking, questioning), cosplay (learning, memorizing, investing) or original response works (music written in response to a book or poem, a poem responding to music, music responding to visual art, etc.).
People who participate in fandom never passively allow the art to “wash over” them. It’s a place of action, where you discuss and think through every aspect of a work, the excellent as well as the subpar. In fact, many of the most interesting fan theories and discussions revolve around plot points, characters, or relationships that fans find to be flawed or lacking in some manner. Fandom does not cultivate blind acceptance, but sparks an ongoing, exploratory conversation.
In or out of fandom, real enjoyment involves some amount of criticism, and the act of critique is difficult. It requires time and effort. But in the end, it produces a more fruitful and rewarding encounter with art.
Like a true hipster nerd, I was initially turned off by Hamilton’s popularity. Like Andrew, I thought Hamilfans were annoying, and I avoided listening to the soundtrack. When I finally did listen to one of the tracks, I approached it with extreme skepticism, looking for something to pick apart. But in the end, it was the picking apart, examining, questioning, testing, analyzing, and re-listening that made me fall in love with Hamilton.
Are you yearning for an immersive art experience? Do you long to be as obsessed with something as those crazy Hamilfans? Take a cue from fandoms: critique a work. Get to know it intimately. Form a book club or movie discussion group; start an art journal; gather for informal drama and poetry readings. Instead of passively sitting back, find a way to actively invest, explore, and imagine.
Anna Olson has an MA in musicology, a crippling addiction to black tea, and a taste for the nerdier things in life. She currently resides in Washington, DC and enjoys the ample opportunities for Hamilton references that the city provides.